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Justice For All Commission workgroup shares early draft of eviction proceeding recommendations

A workgroup within the Michigan court system's"Justice for All Commission" is sharing an early draft of its ideas to improve the eviction process.

Those include acknowledging the benefits of a more uniform system and have having landlords and tenants represented by lawyers.

State Court Administrator Tom Boyd stressed this is just an early look so stakeholders can weigh in. The draft could see substantial changes between now and when the full JFA Commission takes a look.

Boyd said the work group's draft report is separate from proposed court rules over eviction proceedings expected to become final next month.

"Groups like this have recommendations not only for the court but for our partner agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and [the Michigan State Housing Development Authority] that provide housing assistance to people who may have housing instability because of a landlord-tenant issue. So, these things come together as advice and then find finality," Boyd said.

Though early, the 62-page draft report discusses many statistics and observations about the eviction process.

For example, in 2018, an eviction case was filed for nearly one out of every six renting households, nearly triple the national rate. Another observation is how renters in majority Black neighborhoods had their eviction cases move more quickly than in majority-white areas.

The draft also notes 98% of tenants and nearly 20% of landlords do not have a lawyer in their case.

Advocate Will Lawrence of the Rent is Too Damn High coalition calls that "outrageous."

"We've known forever in this country that the right to representation in a criminal proceeding is a basic foundation of due process. The fact that we don't have that for tenants when peoples' lives, the roof that they live under is on the line, and they're going to lose it, it's just inexcusable," Lawrence said.

He said the work to address evictions goes beyond the court system.

"Frankly, a more streamlined and organized eviction machine is still an eviction machine. And what this report doesn't really address is the need for regulatory reform to hold landlords accountable and more investments to create permanently affordable public alternatives," Lawrence said.

That work would likely be left up to the state Legislature to resolve.

Boyd said the Justice for All Commission isn't near a place where it could support policy proposals yet, including the right to counsel idea gaining steam in certain communities, including Detroit.

He said the state Supreme Court created the commission as a means to come up with ways to increase access to the court system.

"National studies show that 70% of the people with civil justice problems don't have the resources to hire a lawyer and therefore access to the court's problematic. The [JFA] Commission is only one of several stakeholder engagement groups that the Michigan Supreme Court has created to tackle these complicated questions," Boyd said.

He added the next steps for the work group's draft report are for the ideas to be vetted with the broader judicial community before it can be presented to the full commission.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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